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Big in Japan (and Soon, the World): The Rise of Social Mobile Games

The zombies are coming.
June 12, 2012

Facebook, we are told, has a monetization problem on mobile. For ideas, it might want to look no farther than a Japanese company called GREE, which was something of a favorite at the E3 technology show. One of its popular games alone makes the company 200 million dollars each months, reports the BBC. In Japan, it’s bigger than Facebook–indeed, it’s the largest social network in Japan, period.

What exactly is GREE? We tend to think of Zynga games as something that happen within a social network like Facebook. GREE almost turns that equation on its head; the games come first, and the social features like chatting all occur within the game. The games are the social network. And it’s all on mobile–GREE saw that wave from the distance. “We’re in the post-PC era already in Japan,” GREE’s CEO told the Guardian. “Our experience in the mobile arena far exceeds Zynga’s,” he added.

Zynga–and Facebook–better watch out. Not satisfied to merely dominate Japan, GREE is branching out to Western audiences. It’s been snapping up other social gaming companies left and right–most recently, Funzio, which makes popular graphical RPGs. It shelled out $210 million on the deal, reported TechCrunch. The year before, it had paid $104 million for a gaming network called OpenFeint. The company launched its first US-made game in March. It’s called Zombie Jombie.

Zombie Jombie is an avant-garde, story-driven game examining the mores of the upper classes in Edwardian England. It features an innovative use of the smartphone’s gyrometer to simulate pouring tea, and leverages GREE’s social element by encouraging users to meet up in person to discuss the game’s themes and to what extent they are applicable to our own era.

Oh, wait, no, I got mixed up there a second. It’s about zombies.

I’m betraying my own prejudices here. An avid gamer from early youth, I have yet to encounter a mobile social game that challenges me or interests me in any real way. Without going so far as to endorse his statement, I find the idea of indie game designer Jonathan Blow–that social games are “evil”–an intriguing one.

Evil or not, social games are extremely popular and lucrative, and GREE’s model is more lucrative than most. A recent GamesBeat interview with GREE’s  Naoki Aoyagi reveals just how lucrative. After first becoming profitable in 2010, GREE now has a market capitalization of $3.7 billion. For better or for worse, GREE’s a company you’ll soon be hearing much more about.

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